A little-known Northern California town, established more than 100 years ago on a tract of land owned by a Scottish liquor wholesaler named James Ross, encompasses some of the nation's most expensive homes.
The area, a San Francisco suburb north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is a leafy retreat for celebrities, executives and a few politicians.
But even Ross can't keep pace with Alpine, N.J., where the median home sale is $6.7 million and prices have jumped 41 percent year over year, according to Realtor.com.
Where Ross flies under the radar of media scrutiny, residents of Alpine inevitably get attention. In a town where single-family homes sometimes list for more than $50 million, the current most expensive listing is a seven-bedroom, 12-bathroom mansion priced at $18.5 million.
Though wealthy neighborhoods hold their appeal through storms, recessions and stock bubbles, even Ross stumbled considerably in recent years before bouncing back with a vengeance in the past 12 months. The greater San Francisco area saw a 38.6 percent decrease in home values from 2006 to 2011, according to Jennifer DuBois, a director at Realtor.com, which supplied 24/7 Wall St. with data about America's 10 most expensive ZIP codes for home buyers. This year, median list prices in Ross' ZIP code, 94957, have shot up more than 73 percent from a year ago.
In the 10 luxury ZIP codes, where median list prices in September were at least $2.8 million and as much as $6.7 million, residents are incredibly wealthy. Median household income in some of these areas is $30,000 to $50,000 higher than the U.S. median income of $51,914. In the United States in 2010, 4.2 percent of households earned $200,000 or more.
While Ross' recovery is impressive, wealthy neighborhoods are not leading the nation's housing recovery. "We have started to see a recovery in key housing indicators such as median list price and inventory," says DuBois of the nation's wealthiest neighborhoods. "But these luxury areas are not recovering as fast as some less-expensive areas, such as Bakersfield, Calif., or Oakland."
The housing recovery is benefiting from tighter inventories and eager buyers willing to pay higher prices. Nearly every neighborhood on the list has a smaller inventory of homes for sale than it did one year ago. And top-notch neighborhoods are anything but a secret: DuBois says these 10 ZIP codes are all in the top 50 most-searched-for metropolitan statistical areas on Realtor.com.
Another factor driving competition for high-end homes is an increase in international buyers, particularly the past three years, DuBois says. And these buyers aren't bottom-feeding for bank-owned properties. They are looking for homes in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, well above the national median list price of $191,500. There's also been a surge in demand for homes priced at more than $1 million. Even more telling: More than three in five of these international purchases are made in cash, a ratio that has continued to rise since 2007, according to Realtor.com.
Based on home price data provided by Realtor.com, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 U.S. ZIP codes with the highest average listing prices for the month of September.
These are the most expensive neighborhoods in America.
24/7 Wall St. is a website offering financial news and commentary.
Median list price: $6.7 million
Year-over-year change: 41.1 percent
Residents may feel secure behind their iron-gated entrances, but they did not escape Sandy's destruction. Mayor Paul Tomasko reported the storm damaged many homes, but residents of this ultra-upscale enclave -- including Stevie Wonder, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock -- are likely to begin restoration immediately. It's easy to understand the appeal of Alpine, just 15 miles from Midtown Manhattan. Median household income in the Tenafly School District was more than $125,000 in 2010, more than double the U.S. average.
Median list price: $5.3 million
Year-over-year change: 73.6 percent
Ross residents cherish the comforts of living in one of the nation's wealthiest enclaves, but one service they don't have is mail delivery directly to their homes -- they must pick up letters at the local post office. Still, it's not a long walk -- and an easy drive in a Range Rover -- as the town is only 1.6 square miles and the downtown, known as Ross Commons, is within easy reach. Like other towns and neighborhoods on this list, limited housing inventory is pushing up prices, which rose 73.6 percent from September 2011 through September 2012.
Median list price: $5.1 million
Year-over-year change: Unavailable
New York City neighborhoods in this ZIP code, which include Greenwich Village and Tribeca, are home to some of the nation's best jazz clubs and feature many stately homes built more than 100 years ago and condos priced at the top of the market. Demand is so high for this once-Bohemian neighborhood that some one-bedroom apartments command $1 million or more. Some buildings in the area were damaged following Sandy, which could mean that inventory may get even tighter.
Woody Creek, Colo.
Median list price: $4.9 million
Year-over-year change: 26.4 percent
Visitors may find it difficult to believe that this once-rustic part of northwest Colorado, located near the posh community of Aspen, is centered around an eponymously named tavern where Hunter S. Thompson held court. In recent decades, the presence of other famous artists, including rock stars, has further strengthened property values. Inventory has held steady since last year, and home prices continue their steep ascent, rising by 26.4 percent from September 2011 through September 2012.
Median list price: $4.3 million
Year-over-year change: -4.5 percent
Atherton has the feel of an exclusive club, where prospective members wait to pounce on the next mansion that comes up for sale. Silicon Valley initial public offerings have helped fuel sales and the town has made a strong post-recession recovery. Unlike some affluent neighborhoods on this list, Atherton boasts exceptional public schools that help offset the San Francisco Bay Area's notoriously high cost of living. Median income in the area in 2010 was $71,975, more than $20,000 higher than the national average.
Median list price: $3.8 million
Year-over-year change: 17.2 percent
In a town named Beverly Hills, it may be surprising to learn that most of its denizens actually live in the "flats." Not surprisingly, the most expensive homes are ones with great views. Beverly Hills has been glamorized or satirized in TV shows such as 90210 and Beverly Hillbillies, and movies such as Pretty Woman and Beverly Hills Cop. But these days it may be best known for extremely high-end shopping and restaurants on Rodeo Drive. Inventory remains an issue for buyers looking at this market.
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Median list price: $3.3 million
Year-over-year change: 13.5 percent
This unincorporated part of San Diego County boasts some of the highest-earning families in the country, but it has a relatively small population of just 3,117, according to the 2010 Census. That type of exclusivity has drawn its share of wealthy and famous residents, including singer Janet Jackson and actress Geena Davis. One $40 million home currently for sale in "The Ranch," as it is known, epitomizes the appeal: eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, 16,000 square feet and various ponds and waterfalls home to koi.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
Median list price: $3.2 million
Year-over-year change: 2.9 percent
That Montecito is a 90-minute drive from Hollywood isn't lost on the dozens of celebs who call this 9-square-mile suburb of Santa Barbara home. Like a trendy restaurant with a line around the block, Montecito could probably fill a waiting list of wealthy people wanting to move to its ocean-cooled climate (possibly to live near Oprah). The area is also a retirement favorite -- more than a fourth of residents were over 65 in 2010. A slight decrease in homes for sale compared with 2011 isn't helping to satisfy potential buyers.
Median list price: $2.9 million
Year-over-year change: 16.1 percent
Greenwich has catered to many affluent homeowners dating back to its inception in 1640. And while a handful of current listings top $20 million, there are also a number of entry-level homes for under $1 million, something unseen in other communities on this list. Size is a leveling factor: Greenwich has a population of 61,171, according to the 2010 Census. Still the majority of the region is extremely wealthy. In 2010, 43.9 percent of households there earned $200,000 or more, compared with 4.2 percent of households nationwide.
Bel Air, Calif.
Median list price: $2.8 million
Year-over-year change: 16.4 percent
In Bel Air, nestled in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, great views command a hefty price tag. Media rooms are a must-have, because many locals work in "The Industry," meaning Hollywood. One current listing is a $29.9 million property that boasts 20,000 square feet in a "glorious, gated and private compound." In ritzy Bel Air, it's not enough to own a pool, you also need a cabana. From August to September, the median list price in the 90077 ZIP code shot up more than 16 percent, while prices across the U.S. rose by less than 1 percent.
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